OCZ Vertex 3 240GB £426
19th May 2011 | 11:21
The SSD all others will now be benched by
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB - Overview
Memory controllers are the super-model components of the SSD world, and OCZ is dropping the fastest consumer SandForce SATA 6Gbps controller on the planet with this the OCZ Vertex 3 240GB.
SSDs are now so numerous, it's hard to believe that the desktop digital drive in its current NAND-based state hasn't been around that long. That said the enterprise sector has had the pleasure of using SSDs in various guises for a lot longer and solid state storage technology itself has been around longer than you might imagine.
You can actually trace its lineage back to the 1950s.
The first of what most people would recognise as a modern SSD appeared in 1978 when StorageTek brought out its drive. With a capacity of just 90MB it cost a staggering $8,800 per MB which limited its use to industrial, military, medical and commercial applications.
But what transformed the SSD into the desktop drive we know today began life in the 1970's when Fujio Masuoka started to develop NAND flash architecture at Toshiba, the company patenting the technology in 1980 and the concept of NAND flash memory has been evolving ever since.
First came SLC (Single Level Cell) and then more recently MLC (Multi Level Cell). So what's the difference, you may ask.
Well it's all down to how the NAND flash cell stores the data and how data is read from it. A single cell can either store one bit of data (SLC) or two bits of data (MLC) which gives MLC greater storage density.
MLC-based drives may be the kings of the desktop but in the world of the enterprise drive, SLC still rules the roost due to its faster performance and perhaps more importantly in this market sector, its much better reliability.
A standard 34nm MLC drive has a cycle endurance of around 5,000 Write/Erase cycles while for SLC this figure jumps to around 100,000, and for Enterprise NAND it is higher still.
Intel being Intel was lurking in the background, watching the market and technology develop and then preceded to shake everybody up by launching the X25-M. Unleashing 50nm NAND technology in mid-2008 on an unsuspecting world the desktop SSD landscape was changed forever.
The X25-M offering very good performance but with a reasonable price tag, the M in the name was for mainstream, and the next version using 34nm NAND offered better performance still while lowering the purchase cost further.
Intel's aim then, as it is now, to drive down the cost of SSD drives and a gauge of just how successful that aim has been is that the X25-M is one of, if not, the best-selling SSDs in the world.
But while concentrating on the mainstream Intel left a gap in the high end of the market, step forward SandForce and its first generation of controllers whose performance was quite frankly a revelation and it's something Intel has yet to fully get to grips with.
A host of SSD manufacturers jumped on the controller, including SSD pioneers OCZ, making it an important part of the top-end drives.
Now SandForce has brought its 2nd generation controller to the table in the shape of the SF-2000 family, bringing with it the promise of even higher performance. Currently the roadmap shows seven controllers in the family at present; two for the enterprise segment, one for the industrial market and four for the market segment that most people are interested in, the desktop.
The OCZ Vertex 3 is our first taste of SandForce's new special source, so is it the technological leap forward we all hoped?
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB - Architecture
The new SF-2000 controller has been designed to support NAND down to the 20nm level and is a slightly larger die at 14mm compared to the 13mm of the SF-1000 series.
As previously mentioned there are seven new controllers split into three categories; enterprise, industrial and client (desktop). The SF-2500 and SF-2600 parts are for the enterprise segment with Enterprise SATA and SAS interfaces, the sole SF-2300, the SF-2382, is aimed at industrial use.
The SF-2100 and SF-2200 controllers are the ones that concern us though; they're aimed at the desktop market.
The four controllers in this family are the SF-2141, SF-2181, SF-2281 and the SF-2282.
The SF-21xx parts differ from the other two as they only have a SATA 3Gbps interface while the SF-22xx parts use the faster SATA 6Gbps connector.
The offer main differences between the four are the number of flash channels and byte lanes they support; the SF-2141 has 4 flash channels and 4 byte lanes, the SF-2181 and SF-2281 have 8 flash and 8 byte lanes while the SF-2282 has the same number of flash channels but twice the amount of byte lanes at 16.
As each NAND device is 8 bytes wide it means that the SF-2282 can support two NAND devices per channel.
Whether the controller is 8 bytes or 16 bytes has no bearing on performance, it's all to do with how much capacity the drive can support.
All four desktop controller's use the same die; in fact all seven of the SF-2000 controllers do, with the differences being down to packaging, testing and, of course, firmware.
The SF-2000 still uses the DuraWrite technology of the previous generation, which combined with wear leveling and intelligent block management, extends the endurance of the drive. DuraWrite is a cache-less technology which means that drive manufacturers using the SF-2000 don't have to incur the extra cost of adding a third DRAM chip to use as cache.
SandForce has tweaked the power saving features of the controller as well, with built-in power/performance balancing that will help save battery life for notebook drive SSDs using the controller.
What's also been upgraded for the 2nd generation controller is the EEC engine which is now capable of correcting 55 bits per 512 byte sector, over twice what the engine in the previous generation SF-1200 series controller offered and currently the best in class EEC protection.
Also beefed up is the data encryption, SandForce has added an AES-256 engine to the existing AES-128 engine giving the SF-2000 double data encryption.
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB - Benchmarks
To test SSDs in as close to a real life scenario as possible the drive is installed as a boot drive and a full operating system was installed and motherboard drivers loaded.
We tested in this state and then fill it up with data and then delete it, running through this cycle a few times before testing the drive again to see if there was much difference in the results after subjecting the drive to this usage cycle.
There wasn't a great deal of difference between the two sets of results although through longer term usage there might be.
Burst SpeedHD Tach Megabytes per second - Bigger is better
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB - 462
OCZ RevoDrive X2 240GB - 494
Intel Series 510 250GB - 405
Sequential read/write performance
ATTO Megabytes per second - Bigger is better
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB Read - 543
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB Write - 512
OCZ RevoDrive X2 240GB Read - 730
OCZ RevoDrive X2 240GB Write - 727
Intel Series 510 250GB Read - 484
Intel Series 510 250GB Write - 332
4K random read/write performance
AS SSD Megabytes per second - Bigger is better
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB Read - 13.35
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB Write - 53.95
OCZ RevoDrive X2 240GB Read - 27.68
OCZ RevoDrive X2 240GB Write - 73.48
Intel Series 510 250GB Read - 10.70
Intel Series 510 250GB Write - 34.95
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB - Performance
The first drives to appear in the market using the new controllers are both from OCZ, the enterprise class Vertex 3 Pro using the SF-2582 and the more readily available desktop Vertex 3.
First revealed to the world at CES in January 2011, OCZ's Vertex 3 uses SandForce's desktop flagship controller, the SF-2281, and is currently available in three capacities; 120GB, 240GB (our review sample) and 480GB.
To get to its storage capacity of 240GB, OCZ has used sixteen 16GB Micron 29D128G08CF AAB 25nm NAND chips, eight per side of the PCB. So far so good, but when formatted in a Windows environment you're left with just 223.5GB of usable storage space, so that's 17GB or 8 percent of the storage space taken up by over provisioning - redundancy in the event of NAND failure, data compression, block recycling and spare area for bad block allocation.
That's is a fair old chunk of space being taken away from you.
The SF-2000 supports up to 60,000 sustained random read/write IOPS (Input-output Operations Per Second) which is some 20 percent faster than the SF-1000 while the sequential read/write performance has risen 40 percent to 550MB/s and 520MB/s respectively (the close ratio between the two is a result of SandForce's data management algorithms), which puts it very close to the bandwidth limit of the SATA 6Gbps interface.
Under test conditions the claims made by OCZ for the performance of the Vertex 3 can be seen not to be marketing hype, but more a true reflection of what the drive is capable of.
In the ATTO sequential read/write benchmark the Vertex 3 gives a result of 552MB/s and 513MB/s respectively, the more intensive AS SSD benchmark gives figures of 502MB/s and 292MB/s read/writes, the reason for the lower write speed score in this benchmark is because AS SSD uses incompressible data.
The 4k read and write scores are pretty impressive too, bettered only by OCZ's own RevoDrive X2 which uses four of the previous generation SandForce controllers in one hell of a RAID array.
But enough of synthetic benchmarks, what does it perform like in real world situations? An idea of just how fast the drive is can be gleaned by the fact it took just 16 minutes to load Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 from the time the system was booted from the optical drive, to the start of the Windows load operation, to the time Windows was ready for the motherboard drivers to be loaded.
And that was via an PATA DVD drive, not a SATA interfaced one - impressive to say the least.
Booting into Windows 7 took 35 seconds from a cold boot, i.e. from pressing the power button.
You could speed that up even further by disabling un-used items in the BIOS, but even so that's the fastest boot time of any SSD we have tested lately, including the RevoDrive X2. Moving a 4.5GB file from another SSD (with a 3Gbps interface) took 33 seconds while un-zipping a 1GB file made up of lots of little bitty files took 26 seconds.
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB - Verdict
If you thought the first generation of SandForce controllers was impressive then the performance from the second generation will simply blow you away.
To say that the 240GB Vertex 3 is an impressive drive is to do it a disservice; it is a pretty amazing drive with performance you could only dream about even as recent as last year. In the space of just one generation OCZ has brought out a drive with sequential performance that threatens to overwhelm the SATA 6Gbps interface.
But, and there's always a but, behind the headline speeds, which are nearly twice the speed of the previous generation Vertex 2, the 4KB performance isn't.
Don't get us wrong, the Vertex 3 still has first-rate 4KB performance, making it a superb all round drive, it's just not as pronounced as the sequential read/write performance difference.
Another point to bear in mind is that to get the stunning speeds the Vertex 3 has to offer you really need a Sandy Bridge platform with its native 6Gbps support.
You might not get the full benefit from a board that uses a third party 6Gbps controller like Marvell's 91xx just because of the way that the chip is connected in the board.
You have to feel a little sorry for Intel's SSD division as fresh from the launch of its Marvell controlled 510 Series, its fastest drive to date, the thunder has just been stolen in the most empathic way. But as we said in our review of the Intel 510 series, the timing of its launch was always going to be unfortunate with imminent arrival of the second generation of SandForce controllers.
The one thing that SandForce's new controller does show up is that the idea that the 6Gbps interface would be future proofing for a while yet is now out of the window, well at least it is for the SSD market.
For mechanical drives it'll be a long while yet before the interface gets anywhere close to being flooded by data.
But if the Vertex 3 is anything to go by, SandForce's latest controller has almost made the interface redundant for SSDs overnight.
OCZ's exploration of the PCIe bus for its RevoDrive and RevoDrive X2 parts suddenly makes a lot more sense. And what will be interesting is to see these controllers either paired in OCZ's RevoDrives or how about four of them in the Revo X2 range of PCIe SSD drives?
SandForce's SF-2000 range of controllers provide stunning sequential read/write performance and shows where the future of SSDs is heading.
After all if the combination of SandForce and OCZ can produce a drive in the shape of the Vertex 3 250GB that is almost twice as fast as the previous one in only one generation of the controller, who knows where we'll end up, one things for sure, the replacement for SATA 6Gb/s needs to devolved a lot faster than previous thought.
It's a bit pricey and although the headline performance figures make for amazing reading, is it worth the hundred pound or so premium over the previous generation Vertex 2?
Well, of course it is.
Quite simply the SSD that all others will be measured by...for now.